By Margo Kline
Jonathan Alpeyrie is a serious young man who speaks in low–steady tones as he describes his life–spent flying to the far-and most troubled-corners of the Earth.
He has been a bird of passage since starting college at the University of Chicago in 1998–spending summers chasing exotic locales while working as a photojournalist. He landed on the South Coast this spring.
Just back from a week’s trip to Armenia–Alpeyrie explained in an interview Monday his decision to remain in this area for the summer. It’s "because of someone I met here." She is Alissa Anderson–an alumna of UCSB now working as an art dealer.
Alpeyrie acknowledged that a career in photojournalism might be somewhat offbeat for someone who majored in medieval history in college and swam competitively while earning his degree. What began with a desire to see exotic places in his time off from classes evolved into a career chasing photos in locations as diverse as the former Soviet Union–Congo and the Ivory Coast in Africa–and Nepal–where Maoist rebels are warring with the royal government. He also finds time to go to the country of his birth–France.
His recent trip to Armenia provided material for a less deadline-oriented project–Alpeyrie said. "I’ve been to ex-Yugoslavia to interview veterans of Bosnia and Croatia who were in World War II," he said. "I wanted people who had fought in foreign armies–mostly mercenaries." The vets he interviewed and photographed–all Slovenians and Croatians–fought for Nazi Germany "because they hated Russia," he said. In researching the project–he found that–suprisingly–Hitler’s Wermacht had about 900,000 Muslims–from what is now Bosnia.
Alpeyrie–the son of a Spanish mother and a Russian father–spent his first 14 years in Paris. Then he moved to New York with his father and sister. "I guess I call Manhattan home," he said. His father and sister still live there. His mother lives in Mexico–near Puerta Vallarta.
He attended the Lycee Francaise in New York City–which he enjoyed thoroughly–he said. "It was a lot of fun. I wasn’t very happy to go to college." But the University of Chicago proved to be "a good kick in the butt," he said.
He started working as a photojournalist for local papers. In 2001–he took his first trip to Armenia. From there–he journeyed on to Lebanon and Syria. "They have Armenian communities in Lebanon and Syria–like they do now in Glendale," he said. "I like the Armenia’s. They’re very nice." These days–Alpeyrie shoots news photos for Getty and Agence France Presse. At the same time–he pursues larger projects like the Wermacht veterans–with the aim of publishing books.
"Went I first went [to Armenia]–I had no idea what I would find," he said. "There is a lot of heavy industry in Armenia. The factories were built by the Russia’s–then the Armenia’s worked in them. Now–they’re selling them for scrap."
Traveling the world has led Alpeyrie to some sobering conclusions about geopolitics. For instance–the Armenia’s are still mindful of the mass killings of their countrymen in the early 20th century by Turks. "Everybody [in Armenia] is very hard about this–most passionate about it. They really dislike the Turks. The Turks want to find an agreement about this that it wasn’t genocide. In the west–we argue about what is genocide. I think it was genocide. They [Turks] took whole families–put them in the desert…where they died."
Consequently–he is not sympathetic about Turkey joining the European Union. "Poland and France are pretty determined against Turkey in the EU. The Turks want to join because of money–it’s not for intellectual reasons. Is Turkey Europe? It’s not."
His travels in Africa were also an awakening. He went to the Congo but "I didn’t get involved with the rebels. I did a photo essay about the Binza–kids accused of being witches. Their families kicked them out–saying they’re the reason the families are poor."
The ongoing war among the Congo–Rwanda and Uganda "is worse for the kids." The warring factions "really mess each other up."
Now–Alpeyrie is pausing for a few months to do freelance photography in California–work on his book projects and enjoy spending time with Alissa Anderson. Both his parents have met the young woman–he said–and found her "impressive. They both like her."
She will go to Manhattan in September to attend graduate school at Christie’s–the art auctioneers. Alpeyrie will return to New York at the same time–then leave for a month in Nepal.
In two previous visits to the Himalayan nation–he was in a group that was ambushed. On one of those trips–he saw a government helicopter strafe a village.
Alpeyrie said his routine in such combat situations is always the same: "In the field–I stay with soldiers. They know you’re there shooting [photos]–that you’re there with them. That’s what I do every time. I make friends with the lieutenants and captains–the platoon leaders. They lead the men into battle."
In the same quiet voice–he added–"I am not afraid."